Here's a short post for a Sunday afternoon: a review I wrote for SFX #198, of Holly Black's very enjoyable White Cat. And while I'm here, another of my reviews went up on their site last month, ahead of its appearance in the print version (now on sale).
Spiderwick Chronicles co-creator Holly Black's new book doesn't lack for ambition. It's a mob saga, a boarding school caper, a mystery and an allegory for the immigrant experience in the US. All this in 300 pages and the pace never once flags.
The story begins with our narrator, Cassel, on his school's roof in the middle of the night, with no idea of how he got there or how to get down. All he remembers is dreaming about a white cat. Off the roof, out of the school and back in the never-loving arms of his dysfunctional family, Cassel discovers there's a lot he has no idea about – including the things he does remember.
The inventive world-building shines as each twist of the plot drags Cassel deeper into an underground of black market magic, and the powerful families who have controlled it since 'working' was outlawed in 1929. It's not a unique idea, but it's sketched with nuanced economy and lashings of vivid secondary characters from many walks of life.
Cassel himself is a prickly but engaging outsider, both at home - as the only non-'worker' in his family - and as a poor kid in a school for the rich. A self-confessed liar from a dynasty of con artists, he has a fun approach to problem-solving and a habit of hiding his true self. Black combines the high concept with the everyday to great effect, using the magic-infested waters of Cassel's life to explore what is, for some, the darker side of growing up: a nascent awareness of being hemmed in by adults who don't always tell the truth, and may not have your best interests at heart. But she counters that with the possibility of learning to trust - and to form true, lasting friendships. Despite such weighty themes, the pages fly by.